As it has been a while since the last update, this will be a long one!
Our plan for the end of last week was to meet Fairbanks Jerry back at Alyeska to watch Motor Madness – a bunch of snowmobile and snow bike races. We aren’t exactly motorheads, but we have found that it is nice to have some planned events to keep us moving because otherwise we spend a lot of time looking at each other asking, “Where do you want to go today.” “I don’t know. Where do you want to go?” “I don’t know.”
When we left Kenai last Friday for Alyeska Sara was starting to feel the effects of some food poisoning. We made it back to Girdwood without incident about 10:00 p.m. and I found Jerry in the parking lot. As the caring husband I am, I gave Sara all the privacy she needed and went out to the bar. By the time I got back around 3:00 a.m. (I know many of you won’t believe it, but it’s true), Sara was pretty well cleaned out and asleep.
The next morning she felt considerably better so we spent the day watching various races – seeing far less carnage than I hoped for. I had made some friends of other guys in the parking lot and learned all about the oil platform they worked on in Cook Inlet. The sophistication of their rig is quite interesting. We also spent a bunch of time hanging out with KC, a friend of Jerry’s from Anchorage. She gave us a standing offer to park in her driveway and use her shower so we had a place to go for a few days.
Saturday night established that Sara was not completely better (I didn’t abandon her Saturday night), but she felt better again Sunday morning. You are probably wondering why I keep sharing this information, but it is simply to point out that life goes on, good and bad, when you are living the dream in a van. One of us being sick was one of my pre-trip fears and we weathered it fine. Not that it was pleasant or anything, but we managed. If anything we are a bit more confident in our ability to survive long periods in the van. Of course, everyone knows that it would have been a million times worse if I had gotten sick because…men, so it’s a good thing it wasn’t me!
On Sunday we went to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center just down the road from Girdwood. They house a bunch of rescued indigenous mammals and were a primary partner in reintroducing wood bison to Alaska. In addition to the wood bison we saw reindeer (including a cute 5-day old baby), wolves, black bears, moose, red fox, musk ox, elk, and, of course, brown bears. We were lucky to be watching the brown bears at feeding time so we got to see the big guy up close and personal.
Sunday night we stayed in KC’s driveway. Monday we did a couple touristy things in Anchorage and then drove partway back down Turnagain Arm for a hike. We wanted to climb part way up the very steep Bird Ridge trail to watch the famous bore tide come in. Around the full and new moons, the tidal difference is so significant that the incoming tide hits the outgoing water with such force that it generates a large wave at the head of the tide. We were lucky and Monday was only a few days after the full moon so the bore tide should still be apparent.
On Tuesday we decided to hike up Alaska’s most climbed peak. I’m sure it has that distinction because it is right outside Anchorage and is a fairly short hike. It is not, however, a super easy hike in late April. It was cold in Anchorage and we didn’t completely appreciate that when we went up even a thousand feet we were right back in winter. We were sufficiently dressed for the climb, but the summit ridge is steep and was very icy and we neglected to bring our micro-spikes.
We hit the saddle below the summit and the wind picked up and icy snow pellets started pelting us. We kept going without too much trouble, but about 100′ below the summit the wind picked up again and our lack of solid footing was becoming potentially dangerous. I went a little further as I thought I might make it if I could get around the next corner, but as Kenai and I hit one last small gap in the rocks I could barely see because of the blowing snow. Kenai sat in the gap staring at me, unconcernedly sitting right on a cornice dropping sharply down the other side of the ridge, and I called it a day. With micro-spikes and/or a break in the wind I’m sure we would have been fine, but this was not the time to push it. It is still so funny to me that we could be doing a [very] mini-alpine ascent on the outskirts of Anchorage. It made me feel better when one of the guys coming up the trail as we went down had an ice axe for the ascent.
We again spent the night in KC’s driveway Tuesday night. The last week or two we keep thinking about getting in at least one more day of splitboarding so on Wednesday we decided to be the people we want to be. Peak 3 is the local Anchorage ski destination as it is just on the edge of town and the trailhead is right at the base of the peak. The Alaska Factor, the excellent guidebook for backcountry skiing in Alaska by Joe Stock, promised us “Nude skiers, beer, dog fights, crud and sunsets. It’s the all-Anchorage aprés-work ski scene.” Despite striking out on all those enticing benefits, we had an awesome day.
A nice guy in the parking lot suggested we start by riding one of the gullies on Peak 2 because he and his buddies had already gone out the evening before and skied all the lines on Peak 3 with the new snow that had blown us off Flat Top. We took his advice and had some fun tracks on down from a little below the summit of Peak 2.
At the bottom of the run we ended up in the same gully as Peak 3 so we switched back to hiking mode and headed up Peak 3. Another guy coming down from Peak 3 told us there was still plenty of fresh snow on the skier’s right side and that the skin track was better on that side, too. Such nice people in the Anchorage ski scene!
We hoofed it up the recommended side and, sure enough it was easier hiking and awesome riding. I was fairly concerned at one point that our skin track was just cutting across a large wind slab that had likely blown in overnight, but as I dug down a little it seemed to be bonded to the layer below. Ultimately I don’t have a good idea how much risk we were really taking, but we didn’t die so I’ll mark that one in the experience column. The side we climbed didn’t have a line to the top so we stopped just short of the rocky lines on the summit dome.
The ride was great as the first half of the run was a solid foot of heavy powder. It got gradually shallower, but was still a couple inches of windblown snow on soft corn crust. Really fun conditions. So good that we decided to hike up the other side so we could ride the whole thing from the top. Of course, at that point two people who had been watching us came off the top and took the untracked line just above us, but there was still plenty of fresh for the taking.
The second run on Peak 3 was equally awesome.
With as many backcountry skiers hitting Peak 3 at very opportunity we know we got very lucky to have first tracks in fresh snow. In fact, as we came down our last run about 6:00 p.m. there were already at least four other people in the bowl heading up, we passed five people on the trail, and there were five more in the parking lot when we got down. Joe Stock still let us down, though, because they all had clothes on. After not being sure we would get off our bums and snowboard another day this season, we were quite pleased with the ~4500 vertical foot day. Those are the kind of people we want to be!
It was tough spending four nights in KC’s driveway: bathroom, shower, playing with her new puppy, but it’s been great to make new friends. I’m sure we will stay in touch with KC and Roam for along time!
We got an oil change this morning and while waiting for them to finish up we met a Ford Mustang guy named … Michael Valentine, who almost certainly served in the Air Force at the same bases/times as Sara’s dad. That’s just plain weird. I have to assume they did not know each other because I think Steve might have mentioned that when I started dating his daughter. We also made a quick stop today at Odd Man Rush Brewing in Eagle River because we learned that it is co-owned by Brian Swanson, the star of our CC hockey team in the mid-90’s!
Now we are headed north. We are currently camped at Broad Pass between Anchorage and Fairbanks just east of Denali. Unfortunately it is cloudy and we can’t see the mountain. We learned from another connection that his friends at the base of Denali have gotten 10 feet – 10 FEET – of snow in the last week. Regardless, like all the other mountains in Alaska, the smaller mountains surrounding us here are spectacular to see. I just keep thinking about the millions of lines I could snowboard here!